Former Cleveland Park resident William “Bill” Christenberry was a prolific and multi-talented artist who created hundreds of photographs, paintings, drawings and sculptures known throughout the world for their insightful and haunting qualities.
Nearly every piece of Christenberry’s artwork connected with people on some level, usually stirring deep emotions while invoking fond memories.
“One way that (Bill’s) work appeals to people is that it strikes places in their hearts and in ways that are meaningful to them,” said Sandy Christenberry, a long-time Cleveland Park resident who was married to Bill for 50 years before he passed away in 2016. “We had so many people who would come by after an exhibition, many of them with tears in their eyes, saying, ‘that photograph reminded me so much of my childhood or I remember that when I went to visit my grandparents. Or I grew up in a place like that.’ ”
Sandy discussed her husband’s life work with curator and gallery owner George Hemphill during a Tuesday Talk webinar on Sept. 22. Like many people, Sandy described Bill as a “very soft spoken and polite southern gentleman.” Even though Bill was an internationally renowned artist, “he never thought of himself as being some well-known famous guy,” Sandy said.
Bill was born in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and spent time on his grandparents’ farms in Hale County, Alabama, drawing inspiration from his southern roots for his vast array of artwork. He is best remembered for his haunting compositions of landscapes, signs and abandoned buildings in Alabama.
During his life, Bill was best known as a great photographer, a recognition that tended to overshadow his other work.
“It was sort of distressing to him that the emphasis of his work was being placed on his photographs – there was so much more to it,” said Sandy. “I think eventually people began to realize that.”
His first love was drawing, a passion that runs through all of his artwork. Bill’s body of work is so vast he functioned in some ways as both a historian and an artist, documenting a changing South, Sandy said.
He made yearly trips back to his native Alabama to photograph old buildings and cars as well as landscapes, which served as a basis for his other work.
“He took photographs with a little Brownie (camera), and he would tack these photographs up in the studio to use as references for the paintings he was making,” said Sandy.
During his yearly trips, Bill returned to the same locations to photograph the same subject matter time after time.
“There are sequences of photographs on particular subject matters that start in 1961 and go all the way up to the 1990s,” said Hemphill, president of Hemphill Fine Arts and the editor of William Christenberry:Works On Paper.
For some of his sculptures, Bill rubbed dirt collected from the Alabama soil on the pieces to give them a rustic look.
The key to understanding Bill’s artwork is realizing that every part “was a piece of a universe he was building and constantly expanding on,” said Hemphill. In making his artwork, Bill depicted subjects he liked and those he abhorred such as the Ku Klux Klan, Sandy said.
Bill, for example, created a sculpture known as the Klan Tableau in which he made and dressed dolls in various Klan robes, his way of venting his hatred for the Klan.
“He was not a joiner or a marcher or a protester, except in his own private way,” Sandy noted.
Interestingly, someone stole the Klan Tableau from Bill’s studio in Cleveland Park over the Christmas holidays in 1978 while Bill was at home watching the University of Alabama’s football team on television. Bill was an avid Crimson Tide football fan, having earned his undergraduate and master’s degree from the University of Alabama. Fortunately, Bill was able to recreate the artwork.
That theft led to a dream Bill had about a building covered in signs with a slanted roof and no doors or windows.
“It made such an impression on him that he said he was going to make it, which he did,” Sandy recounted.
Bill made a series of dream building sculptures with slanted and pointed roofs, prompting people to compare the buildings to the Washington Monument and even the Ku Klux Klan.
“It is a combination of things,” Sandy said of the dream building sculptures. “But there is definitely a reference to the Klan shape, the Klan hood in those works.”
Sandy and Hemphill showed some of the dream buildings and other works by Bill, including a picture of a small but striking red building standing eerily alone in an Alabama pine forest. That building served as a polling station in that rural part of Alabama.
Another photograph shows a house and an old, blue-painted car with flat tires parked near a house. The car, Hemphill said, “looks like it was painted with a brush and a can of enamel paint.”
Bill’s legacy transcended his artwork. Bill taught at the Corcoran School of Arts and Design for 40 years, teaching hundreds of students, some of whom took his courses year after year.
Sandy divided Bill’s students into two categories – the old groupies and the young groupies based on how long they took courses with Bill.
“So many of them are still working artists today,” said Sandy. “He has also left a legacy in terms of other photographers who have followed in his steps.”
Cleveland Park Residents
As long time Cleveland Park denizens, Sandy explained how she and Bill settled in Cleveland Park where they raised a family.
Sandy and Bill came to Washington, D.C., in September of 1968 and lived in Adams Morgan for a few years. They moved to Macomb Street in Cleveland Park in April of 1972, drawn to the neighborhood by the fine reputation of the nearby schools.
“We are glad (our) kids went to John Eaton (Elementary), Alice Deal (Middle School), and (Woodrow) Wilson High schools,” said Sandy. “We were DC school parents for 23 years.”
In September of 1974, the Christenberry’s moved from their first house on Macomb Street to a larger house next door with a bigger yard. They had a studio built on the large side yard of the house in 1985.
This made it possible for Bill to go to work by simply walking from his breakfast room through a screened-in porch to the studio. Bill referred to this walk as a “dog trot” into the studio, Sandy said.
That studio became a “vortex of activity,” Hemphill said.
“There were regular museum buses that would stop and docents would come and see things,” remembered Hemphill. “We would invite curators there and individual collectors and people who were interested. Bill was enormously generous with his time.”
Hemphill’s job was to sell Bill’s artwork, a task that was not always easy because Bill was a great storyteller who mesmerized people with his stories while they visited the studio. The visitors did not want to leave sometimes, Hemphill said.
“I sometimes would have to nudge (Bill) along,” said Hemphill.
Labor of Love
Bill followed a set routine when working in his studio. In the mornings, he ate breakfast and went straight to his studio to work. He came back to his house in the afternoon to eat lunch before returning to the studio to work until dinner.
After finishing dinner, he went back to the studio to sit and ponder what he worked on that day.
“Sometimes, there is a romantic illusion that an artist sits around pondering clouds and then has this moment when lightning strikes, and he or she then creates masterpieces,” said Hemphill.
In many cases, artists are more like factory workers, punching a clock and working tirelessly to create their artwork, Hemphill said.
A trip to an artist’s studio is like visiting a “witches’ cauldron,” the studio telling its own story about the artist, according to Hemphill.
“It is a place where magic occurs,” Hemphill said simply.
Most studios reflect the artists’ work in a haphazard way – paintings and other pieces of artwork strewn about, for example. Bill’s studio, by contrast, resembled more of a gallery experience – a studio wall with signage, talismans collected as part of his work, and three-dimensional cutouts. And it gave you a real sense of what he was working on.
“It wasn’t paint you were looking at – it was graphic ideas, signage and wording,” commented Hemphill.
In 2011, Bill was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, leading to a “long, drawn out, sad period,” that curtailed and then ended his artistic career a few years before his death, Sandy said.
In remembering Bill’s life and work, Sandy also shared fond memories of living on Macomb Street in Cleveland Park. Many of the Christenberry’s Macomb Street neighbors were artists and musicians, kindred spirits who contributed to the vitality and uniqueness of the neighborhood through the years.
“We have loved all of our neighbors for the most part,” said Sandy. “Living here has been wonderful.”